By Saira Khan

Last weekend in a moment of excitement my body took on a familiar yet distant shape.  One arm bent behind my head, the other arm extended out, as if towards a lover, or measuring a piece of cloth using my body from nose to fingertip (1.), chest wide open, the face looking like it’s just had some kind of release. I laughed, remembering that this was a pose adopted by many a Bollywood heroine in the movies of my childhood, the 1980s, when sex couldn’t  be explicitly shown and was represented by a metaphoric formula on-screen for the Hindi and Urdu speaking world populace.  

When two lovers first became intimate, their lips about to touch, the camera cut to a close up of flowers blooming on screen. The flowers, often daffodils, azaleas, tulips, and peonies, represented the act of sexual union and filled the screen, vibrating and lilting in the breeze.  Cut to the woman running through a field of more flowers, her arms akimbo, one behind her head.  She sings a long and sultry aria pattern—her orgasm, perhaps.  The man joins in her in the dance.  

I was twelve, just beginning to understand sex and this was my base layer understanding of the making of love: that it had to do with florals, singing and dancing.  She wouldn’t answer questions about sex, so I asked my mother about politics instead, “But Ammi, if we hate India so much, why do we watch Indian movies?” 

“Because Pakistani movies aren’t very good,” was my mother’s answer, “the singing and dancing aren’t good.”  Did she mean the love scenes?   

The word Pakistan means the land of the pure. To be pure, one had to be chaste.  To be chaste, one had to not really know or understand anything about sex. Bollywood movies at least acknowledged sex, if in hidden ways. In contrast, Pakistani movies hesitated against romantic storytelling, against people touching and disapproved even of outfits intended to flatter the female form. The mere artistic representation of the human form was considered evil, sacrilegious. It was daring to do what only God could – create life. Writing this now I experience the same confusion I did as a child: these types of arguments were contrary to art making of all sorts and to the ultimate truth that women did after all create life. Still, my mother comforted me, offering the idea that at least abstract art was permissible in Islam.  At least abstract love was possible.  

Because we lived in the States, I was naturally exposed to explicit sexual images on the screen as I sat in front of  the TV in the family room. I’d see people kissing, touching, moving together with that look on their faces as if they were about to get down, in what we called “white people programs.” When that happened, my father would expel a sound “oho” indicating trouble and my mother would change the channel herself or yell out “Change the channel!” when someone else was holding the remote.  For a few moments, we’d watch whatever random program was happening on another channel, waiting for the “dirty scene” in our original program to pass. We’d check back after a minute to see if the dirty scene had ended, flipping back and forth, until it was over, the danger of seeing sex on screen had passed.  

This is how my family watched American TV and years later these skills proved useful when I got a job at a Middle Eastern television station as an “Editor” whose job it was to edit out all the dirty or sex-related, including kissing, scenes of American programs before they were aired to the local Muslim public.  I would examine each show frame by frame, deleting out the parts where a person touches another, smells her hair, hugs her, kisses her, undresses her.  I spliced the remaining scenes as if nothing had been taken out, as if the sex had never been there.

 1. Using your body to estimate length, the distance between your nose and your fingertip when your arm is extended is about a yard (36 inches). If you haven’t used this method yourself, ask your mother or grandmother: It’s the traditional way of measuring cloth. 

This is how my family watched American TV and years later these skills proved useful when I got a job at a Middle Eastern television station as an “Editor” whose job it was to edit out all the dirty or sex-related, including kissing, scenes of American programs before they were aired to the local Muslim public.  I would examine each show frame by frame, deleting out the parts where a person touches another, smells her hair, hugs her, kisses her, undresses her.  I spliced the remaining scenes as if nothing had been taken out, as if the sex had never been there. 

In my childhood, the only kind of provocative scenes that we didn’t have to forward or flip away from were the attempted rape scenes in Bollywood movies. Those were very instructive and technically a “fight” scene, therefore okay to watch.  

In those scenes, a young woman is chased by a group of men, usually dark skinned with hungry covetous sneers on their faces, evoking Wile E. Coyote.  The men form a circle around the young woman and bat her to and fro. She screams and is as helpless as a kerchief in the wind.  She usually wears a billowing white sari.  The men grab hold of one end of her sari and spin her around until the whole length of sari has been unwound and she stands cowering in her petticoat and blouse, her midriff bare. It begins to rain so that she becomes wet. Then just as one man comes forward to rip off the remaining blouse exposing her bare breasts. Out of the blue arrives our hero, a light colored and charmingly coiffed man well versed in the art of kung fu. With a few solid kicks he dispenses with the whole circle of villainous men, who crumple to the ground and a few cowards left still standing run off.  He turns to the shivering girl and puts his leather jacket around her shoulder. She cries, confessing that she cannot return home in this condition because no one will believe that her virginity is intact. The hero promises that he will tell no one how he found her and helps her sneak back into her house like a burglar. Quickly refreshing her appearance as the model of virtue, she is saved from a life of shame.  

Through this oft repeated scene in practically every Bollywood film, I learned that what is most important for a woman is her izaat: a woman’s honor, reputation and prestige all contained in her pussy. Meaning that any entries into her vagina against her will or against the tradition of being married first would despoil her, making her lacking in honor, giving her the reputation of a loose woman. These were the basic lessons in sexuality and power I received from my culture. The vagina was proprietary, needing the blessing of elders before its pearly gates could be entered.  

I spent my teenage sex-life secretly recreating the Bollywood scenes with lots of men who were FOBs (Fresh Off the Boat), men who were taxi-drivers, butchers at halaal meat markets, undocumented usually, living in communal basement apartments.  I’d willingly go with them, even though in my mind they were taking my izaat without my permission.  It was the only way an unmarried woman could have sex. To explore my sexuality, I had to create an elaborate underground channel first, even to leave the confines of the house.  

My dad had told me that my teenage brother was allowed to go out at night. I on the other hand was not and not because I was lesser than, but I was more than.  I was made of gold and my brother, being a male, was made of iron. Iron pots, dad said, can be placed outside a home at night without fear but gold ones?  Surely, they would be stolen. And since I was a golden pot, I had to stay inside.

Instead, I waited until the whole house was asleep. Slipping out the window to the edge of the sloping tiled roof, I’d jump from the second floor and walk into a waiting carful of testosterone, full of dark giggling men, fresh off the boat from Pakistan, where they all smelled sort of the same, like hair oil and turmeric. They’d been introduced to me by my friend Sadia, who like me, was made of gold.  

Sadia and I never spoke about the details to each other of our adventures with the FOBs.  This is simply how we had sex. We laid down for these men, their faces contorting in the moonlight streaming in from their dirty windows.  We’d close our eyes and play the violin in our heads, next to the santoor’s raga. The sounds of our deflowering bloomed in our heads. As it happened, no light colored young men came to save us, but we didn’t need it. Somehow we’d return home again before dawn and put on the modesty of a pure Pakistani-American girl.  

Soon the word got around to the FOBs that if you parked late at night outside our homes and gave the slightest honk, or threw a rock at our windows, that we, the girls would climb out. We’d jump fantastically from the roof like a Bollywood hero, a visual representation of the Million Dollar Man’s bionic sound effect, sally towards the car, get in it and take a swig of whatever was being passed around.  For a few years, Sadia and I continued with the FOBs. Only stopping after we’d come of age and even then still not even speaking of the abortions we had, more than one each.  

Eventually, further information came to light as I grew up and went through the obligatory forsaking of most of the teachings of my past, the disillusionment period. It was all a hoax – a woman had no inherent reputation or honor, women were no different from men, all people were equally capable of violence in sexuality and behind closed doors they threw themselves against each other like animals without shame or hiding. My sex ed shifted as a young woman and I thought I was liberated, when in fact I was still acting out a sexual fantasy of being wanted, as a prize, a sexual object. I still saw men as the other to my polarity, something to obtain or fix in a proscribed way: call a rapist or call a husband. Was it biology or social conditioning that made it an imperative that I find my other half, the person from whom I was separated with at the beginning of time?  Finding a husband was a path of respectablity and freedom from being a potential rape victim for eternity.   

In Bollywood film marriage ceremonies, the bride’s veil is tied to the groom’s sash and she walks behind him in a circle seven times.  She is now bound to him for at least seven lifetimes. After the wedding, the couple lay fully dressed in bed.  He sings to her, an ode to her beauty and devotion. If they have sex, we do not know how.   
The man I married did not mention that my hymen was not intact. He was light colored, like the hero of the Bollywood films.  Yet, he presented a new challenge for me.  Should I lie down and let him have me?  Should I be an animal and throw myself at him and insist on being on top?  Nothing seemed to quite fit and we fumbled through for many years lovingly having sex that stimulated soft porn.

My mother’s wedding advice to me had been: “I don’t need to tell you anything; you already watch movies.” Though what she meant was that I’d watched the whole American show; I didn’t change the channel or look away when someone was having sex.  She’d already told me what her own mother had said before her wedding, to take a shower afterwards.  My mother as a young bride nodded, without any idea what sex was. She had to take a shower because sex was considered a dirtying affair, after which one could not pray without cleansing. 

For my part, I thought I knew what sex was and did not look away from sex scenes.  I only looked away when I myself was having sex.  I looked away when I was having sex with my husband and he’d say, “where are you?” I’d pretend I had my eyes closed because I was focusing on the feeling of his touch; secretly wondering how he’d known that I wasn’t really there.  I’d lain down and become a sex object, a wind up sex doll.  He wanted more.  It was my first hint that sex was not just about body on body. It also wasn’t about the orgasm. I always orgasmed, the release of pent up frustration, a bodily expression of letting go.  The sex I was having was only skin deep. 

After having two children, I did not want to have sex any longer. Having performed my reproductive duties, what further purpose was there in sexual entanglement? The newness had long worn off and now sex made me feel even further from him or me. It was messy, inconvenient, uncivilized, perhaps something only teenagers or actors did well. He stopped asking.  We slept next to each other like brother and sister.  

My vagina stopped working: I was like a eunuch, cut off from my own sex, but I’d done it to myself.  Eunuchs were common in Pakistan when I visited there as a young girl. There was a houseful of eunuchs on Murree Road, where we passed to get to the ice-cream shop. They’d show up to weddings and big events as performers, singing and dancing the latest Bollywood tunes and old classics too, for everyone’s enjoyment, for a price. They looked like men but dressed and moved like women. “What are they?” I asked my mother, as a child.  

“They are men who act like women,” she said. “They sometimes are also prostitutes.” I wanted to know how they became like this.  “They are children without parents who are stolen and maimed to become paid performers.” She was quite blunt with me.  

  As a child, I was afraid of eunuchs, it seemed like a cruel fate.  As an adult, I had become a eunuch too: performing for others, having affairs to fill some emptiness inside, prostituting myself by having sex with someone in exchange for a feeling of affection.  I did all my eunuch activities in secret, pretending to others that I was as happy as the two little children that lived with us.  

This is where the journey of my culture ended. I wanted more. I had to find the true meaning of everything, sex, love, beyond what I’d learned from parents, movies, society.  I wanted to be free of sexual repression, the veil that obscured knowing what sex was, the perspective of a female’s worth lying within the vagina because it all felt perverse. I wanted information about sex that went beyond what I already knew because what I already knew felt jaded and meaningless. I had to unlearn everything from the past. But how? The years passed and I was mystified. Was it possible that the knowledge passed down to me also contained secret codes if I only knew how to read them.  After all, wasn’t it true that a woman’s pussy is indeed everything.  That it contains honor, exaltation, life itself.  

And sex does feel like flowers blooming, the vagina itself a flower, its intimacy contained in the petal-folds if I could be brave enough to awaken to their fragrance and let my lover in.  It’s the journey of a union or an extinction. I still have no concrete facts about sex because no one from any culture will tell me for certain.  Perhaps because no one can tell me.  It’s a blossoming my vagina must do alone (or with another). But there are clues everywhere.  In films, when the light softens and the eyes half droop after sex, indicating a theta state.  In girlfriend gossip, when we talk of the legend of 90 year old women having earth shattering sex, the walls of their inner sanctum quivering for minutes, hours, days.  In my husband’s eyes and his whispered questions:  “is that how you like it.  Is that where?  What is that called?”

And I say, “clit,” and I am deeply uncomfortable because clit is such a clinical word.  I can’t guess from language or imagery anymore when we lay, I have to be mute. I have to embody the Pussy in it’s own image, it’s own language.  I have to be worthy of her.